After Hours

10 simple things you can do to improve your writing

If you're like much of today's workforce, you need to have halfway decent writing skills to succeed at your job. But if you don't have time to work on those skills, mastering a few basic rules can still make a big difference.

If you're like much of today's workforce, you need to have halfway decent writing skills to succeed at your job. But if you don't have time to work on those skills, mastering a few basic rules can still make a big difference.


Maybe you've never penned a single blog entry, never been asked to write a progress report, never had to read over a colleague's work for errors, and never had to send a critically important e-mail message to your boss. If that's the case, you're free to go now. But for most of us, a certain amount of writing is part of our job — and unfortunately, our efforts aren't always as effective as they should be.

We've talked before about some of the big blunders — grammatical mistakes and misused words — that find their way into our written communications. Now, let's consider some of the general best practices that contribute to clean, consistent writing. These pointers are based on TechRepublic's in-house conventions, which are based on commonly recommended guidelines. (In other words, you don't have to agree with them. And of course, variations may exist depending on what country you live in.)

The good thing about following a few rules in your writing, even if some of them seem arbitrary or trivial, is that it frees you up to concentrate on what you're trying to say instead of trying to figure out why something doesn't sound right or worrying that it's just plain wrong.

And there's this: People will notice when your writing is tighter and more consistent. I guarantee it.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Echoes

Bad practice: Repeated words or phrases set up an echo in the reader's head or a "Didn't I just read that?" glitch that can be distracting. Example:
  • Several "but"s or "however"s or "for example"s in one paragraph (or in nearly every paragraph); a series of paragraphs that begin with "Next"
  • A favorite crutch word or phrase used throughout an article ("ensure that," "as such", "that said")
Best practice: Vary the language to avoid annoying or distracting readers with repeated words. Even better, get rid of some of the repeated verbiage, which usually turns out to be overkill anyway.

#2: Nonparallel list items

Bad practice: We often use an inconsistent structure for lists or headings. Example:

We will cover these topics:

  • Backing up the registry
  • The Registry Editor is your friend
  • Using REG files
  • Use a GUI tool
  • Searching the registry
  • Take advantage of Favorites
  • Clean the registry
Best practice: Reword where necessary to make the items parallel.

#3: Agreement problems

Bad practice: Sometimes we lose track of what the subject is, and our verb doesn't match. Examples:
  • Neither of the editors are very smart.
  • The dog, as well as the goat and chicken, are easy to parallel park.
  • One-third of the company are color blind.
Best practice: Scrutinize the subject to determine whether it's singular or plural. It's not always obvious.

#4: Referring to companies, organizations, etc., as "they"

Bad practice: A company — or any collective group that's being referred to as a single entity — is often treated as plural, but it shouldn't be. Examples:
  • I wish Wal-Mart would get their pot hole fixed.
  • Microsoft said they'll look at the problem.
Best practice: Unless there's some compelling exception, use "it."

#5: Hyphenating "ly" adverbs

Bad practice: "ly" adverbs never take a hyphen, but they pop up a lot. Examples:
  • We like to avoid commonly-used expressions.
  • Click here for a list or recently-added downloads.
Best practice: Don't hyphenate ly adverbs. The "ly" says "I modify the word that comes next," so there's no need to tie them together with a hyphen.

#6: Using "which" instead of "that"

Bad practice: We sometimes use "which" to set off an essential clause (instead of "that"). Examples:
  • The meeting which was scheduled for 1:00 has been cancelled.
  • The option which controls this feature is disabled.
Best practice: The commonly-accepted (haha) convention in American English is to set off a nonessential clause with the word "which" and a comma. One good test is whether the information is extra — not essential to the meaning of the sentence. If the clause is essential, use "that."

#7: Wordy constructions; deadwood phrases

Nothing is worse for a reader than having to slog through a sea of unnecessary verbiage. Here are a few culprits to watch for in your own writing.

Has the ability to can
At this point in time now
Due to the fact that because
In order to to
In the event that if
Prior to the start of before

#8: Using "that" instead of "who"

Bad practice: Some writers use "that" to refer to people. Examples:
  • The bartender that took my money disappeared.
  • The end user that called this morning said he found my money.
  • The folks that attended the training said it was a waste of time.
Best practice: When you're referring to people, use "who."

#9: Inconsistent use of the final serial comma

Bad practice: One convention says to use a comma to set off the final item in a series of three or more items; another (equally popular) convention says to leave it out. But some writers bounce between the two rules. Examples:
  • Word, Excel, and Outlook are all installed. (OR: Word, Excel and Outlook are all installed.)
  • Open the dialog box, click on the Options tab, and select the Enable option. (OR: Open the dialog box, click on the Options tab and select the Enable option.)
Best practice: Decide on one convention and stick to it. Those who read what you've written will have an easier time following your sentence structure if you're consistent.

#10: Using a comma to join two dependent clauses

Bad practice: Commas are a great source of controversy and often the victim of misguided personal discretion. But there is this rule: Two dependent clauses don't need one. Examples:
  • I hid the ice cream, and then told my sister where to find it.
  • The user said he saved the file, but somehow deleted it.
Best practice: If the second clause can't walk away and be its own sentence, don't set it off with a comma.

About

Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

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